A Widow’s Story, by Joyce Carol Oates

Brides don’t buy their white wedding gown thinking about the black dress they may need someday. Joyce Carol Oates shares her shocking plunge into widowhood when her husband of forty-six years, Raymond Smith, died suddenly.

Oates begins her memoir “A Widow’s Story” recanting how lucky she and Ray felt to have both survived a serious car accident, never realizing their remaining days together were numbered. One year after the crash Ray fell ill and she took him to the emergency room where they learned he had pneumonia. Expecting a release within days, Ray’s condition worsened with a virulent hospital-acquired infection. Oates gives us an unflinching look at what happened next: the urgent middle of the night call instructing her to return to the hospital immediately, her bedside goodbye to her beloved, and collecting his personal items in a total daze… somehow she misplaces his watch.

“My husband died, my life collapsed,” she writes.

The memoir then chronicles the following year of her grief, paralyzing loneliness, and struggle to find a new normal. She tells of the unexpected “death duties” required of widows as the executrix of a will – so many copies needed of the death certificate!

Joyce Carol Oates refers to this work as a quasi widow’s handbook but it also provides some important hints for the well-intentioned supporters of the grieving. Thinking of sending flowers or a gift to the bereaved? JCO writes that a barrage of sympathy bouquets and food baskets initially overwhelmed her and the packaging material kept her trash can overflowing. A card with some thoughtful words indicating no response is necessary would do nicely, but choose your words with care. Consider these moments JCO reveals when sympathizers put their foot in their mouths:

— Too soon after her husband’s death people asked for her future plans: “What are you going to do now? Sell your house?”
— A friend praised her for wearing pink, the implication being that widows wear black.
— At dinner with several couples a toast to marriage gave way to a discussion of the joys of long marriages.
— A contractor she hired likened his divorce to the death of her husband.
— The long-time physician of Raymond Smith tried to make sense of his sudden death in the hospital saying, “Maybe Ray just gave up.”

Critics of “A Widow’s Story” dislike that Joyce Carol Oates remarried and not a word of husband number two was mentioned in the memoir. I believe knowing that JCO wed again makes it easier to read the sorrow palpable in its pages. It also makes this a tale of triumph over tragedy.

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